February 7, 2008 Issue
Chestnut Hill Local
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Hill native writes first novel at 70
At age 70, Harry Groome has not yet learned what the term “retire” means as he celebrates the publication of his first book, Wing Walking, a novel (based on true events) that portrays the emotional and personal side of the large corporate players in the pharmaceutical industry.
Groome, a native Hiller and Chestnut Hill Academy graduate, worked in corporate pharmaceutical companies for more than 30 years, starting out as a writer and advancing, eventually, to chairman of SmithKline Beecham Consumer HealthCare.
When he was 52 and retirement loomed eight years ahead (SmithKline, a British company, required employees to retire at 60), someone had suggested he begin writing again.
“I filed it away,” he said of the suggestion, and when retirement came a few years later, he gave writing a whirl.
Groome, who had earned a degree in English at the University of Pennsylvania before working for SmithKline, enrolled in a master’s writing program at Vermont College shortly after his retirement at 59.
While attending Vermont, Groome said age was never an issue. In fact, his department was split, but the program’s students were split by specialty — poetry or creative writing.
“Age wasn’t weird because we were all writers,” Groome said in an interview in the Wayne Hotel lobby, near his home in Villanova. “The division wasn’t in age and the division wasn’t in gender. It was are you ‘poetry’ or ‘fiction.’”
There was even an annual softball game pitting the poets against the writers, of which Groome was the unofficial captain. When he graduated in 2000, the poets gave Groome a comic award for having “fictional athletic skill.”
During and after completing Vermont’s master’s program, Groome had a number of short stories, poems and essays published, though his focus was always short stories. Those are “about all sorts of stuff,” he said, including climbing and fishing.
He said he often writes about subjects he is familiar with, but the stories are always fiction, even if they are based on reality, but he never tackled his experience in the corporate pharmaceutical industry until Wing Walking.
While most of his professional experience has been in that industry, Groome said he never felt that he had a story worth writing. Vermont students would constantly ask Groome to write about his experience, but even while at Vermont he was still flying to England twice a month to serve on a number of boards.
“I had just gotten away from all that,” he said, referring to the corporate work. “I didn’t think I had a story.”
But then the first merger discussions began between pharmaceutical companies SmithKline Beecham and Glaxo Wellcome in the late 90s that resulted in the formation of GlaxoSmithKline.
Groome knows the chief executive officer of Glaxo well, and so being on the inside and watching the events of that deal take place, he gained material for his story.
Wing Walking tells a story similar to the SmithKline Glaxo drama, but instead of focusing on the corporate response to the situation, Groome portrays how the business affects the players’ personal lives and families.
He said there are obvious differences between Wing Walking and what occurred in the Glaxo deal, specifically since he made the companies family-owned rather than corporate giants. And he said the reaction of the real board to the deal and the fictional board in his book was much different.
His story also incorporates the struggle among members of the Strawbridge department store family over the selling of its business (Groome has been friends with Peter Strawbridge, the grandson of the founders and former president of the company, ever since college.)
“It’s a conglomerate of events that actually happened,” Groome said. “I took things that happened, not necessarily to me, and wrote them into fiction.”
After Groome finished the novel, he hired an agent to present it to publishers. But when he discovered that, after one year waiting for publishers to respond to the novel, the book had never been sent to one of the publishers he thought was reviewing it, Groome decided to publish it himself.
“I wasn’t impressed [with the agent],” he said. “I was 68 years old and I didn’t want to wait 10 years.”
Groome said he thought publishing his book would be a “great learning experience,” and it certainly was. During the two years it took him to publish it, Groome hired everyone, from the printer and distributor to a proofreader and designer.
He had friends and family help him out too (his son’s marketing firm in New York City, Mojo Marketing, designed the book’s cover and interior, and a friend took the photo of him for inside the dust jacket).
“I never even knew books had to have their interiors designed,” he said.
But he added that he loved the “tactile” part of creating the book, which reminded him of his high school days interning at a newspaper and watching the printing press.
He also loved having such control over the finished product, which he would never have gotten with a publishing company. And he certainly went all out with this first book.
“It is produced in the most expensive fashion possible,” he said, as a hardbound book, sewn and not glued made with recycled paper and printed by the environmentally-focused company, Thomson-Shore, Inc. .
He said he would have loved to go the traditional route, getting it published by a publishing company, “but I had a lot of fun doing the type of design and type of product I wanted.”
That being said, he added that he is unlikely to publish his next novel, currently in progress, with Connelly Press, Groome’s publishing name (“Connelly” is his middle name).
“It’s probably, most definitely, going to be a one-book press,” he said of Connelly. “Publishing it cost a lot. There are a lot of hidden costs. I didn’t do it to make money and it’s a good thing I didn’t. But I’m having a lot of fun.”
Groome’s next novel is going to be set in Alaska, the plot an expansion of a story someone told him while he was flying over Alaska a few years ago. The pilot, pointing to a lone cabin in the woods, told Groome a story about a man who lives in the state’s back country and emerges once a year to woo a girl into staying in the woods with him for a year, and then beats her.
Groome said he started writing it as a short story but then thought the storyline begged for more.
“I thought, jeez, this would be a great novel because there are so many things that could go on,” he said.
Situating his novel in a unique locale is how Groome said he is working to set himself apart from other novelists, and create a work that entices readers.
“As a writer you are looking for some way to distinguish yourself from other writers,” he said. “One is to have a novel set in a way that other writers aren’t comfortable with.”
Using Wing Walking as an example, Groome said not many people could accurately write about corporate players at the level that he can. And, referring to his novel-in-the-works, he said the Alaskan wilderness is another rarely tackled setting.
Groome said he is not sure when his next work will be completed.
“I’m putting on the finishing touches now,” he said, but qualified that by adding, “I thought I was putting the finishing touches a year ago.”
He said a novel is never completely finished.
“There’s so much that goes on in a novel that you always want to go back and fiddle with it,” he said. “I’m never confident I have the story right.”
Wing Walking, which is available in all local bookstores and online, will have some editing changes in its second printing (the first was 1,000 books, and the second will be the same).
He said he has been surprised by some of the reviews that call Wing Walking a “page turner.”
“That kind of bowled me over,” he said.
After the Alaskan book, with the anticipated title Wolves at her Feet, is published, Groome said he has a store of ideas to start working on.
“I’m not bereft of ideas, just time,” he said.
Contact staff writer Kristin Pazulski at 215-248-8819 or email@example.com.